I didn’t know it was possible to sink into mud up to your knee caps and still pull yourself out again. But mud at the bottom of a fish pond is fully mixed with water, and apparently, walking around in it can stir up the critters who live there (shrimp, in this case), and give you a chance of catching them with a wicker basket.
I did not imagine that learning traditional fishing techniques of the Mekong Delta would be part of our Fulbright orientation. Especially not when it followed two days of meetings with US Consulate officials, including the US General Consul, Susan Burns, and many of her section chiefs. We were briefed on economics, politics, safety and health. We met with representatives from the Public Affairs section, who are very interested in our work here, building ties with Vietnamese universities. It was truly exciting to learn about Vietnam from the perspective of Americans who have been working here.
And importantly, we got to meet the other Vietnam Fulbrighters: four of us recently arrived, four others who have been here since September. Those who have been here for the past four months shared their experiences adjusting to a new culture, a new language, a new way of living. We also got to meet the Fulbright team from the US Embassy in Hanoi, who have been so helpful, from working with us to get our visas, and helping to connect to our universities.
The trip to the Mekong was part of our cultural enrichment program. Of course, I’m also drawn to learn about environmental changes affecting this place that is well known as one of the canaries in the climate change coal mine. The Mekong River Delta sits about 50 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City, so it’s fairly easy to reach from the city (if the traffic is amenable!). It is a huge agricultural and economic center and home to about 20 million people. It’s also one of the places in this world most affected by climate change.
Imagine a watery maze of islands and canals, carpeted in tropical flora, rice paddies, and palm trees, with no bit of land sitting more than 3 meters above sea level. This region is a large producer of rice, sugar cane, coconuts, and various types of fruit, fish and shrimp. In fact, 80% of the rice exported from Vietnam comes from the Mekong. Most people can imagine how rising sea level might erode such low-laying islands. But intrusions of saltwater up the Mekong River and into the delta are causing the first wave of damage. It’s hard to water your crops when your water has too much salt.
Near the delta city of My Tho, we boarded a boat that took us across the river to an island where we had a chance to get a glimpse of life in the delta (and spend money on local coconut candies). We were treated to local tea and a big spread of local fruits. There was a short ride in a horse-drawn cart, and to get back to our boat, we paddled down a mangrove-lined canal in canoes.
The fishing adventure happened the next morning. We spent the night in a remote resort near the town of Ben Tre. This is where I experienced my first endless Vietnamese meal (I thought the appetizer was the main course and I was quite full by the time it was done. Then they brought out more food!) The next morning, we were told we would have to catch our own lunch – using the traditional method of basically wading along in the canal and catching fish and shrimp with a wicker basket. They gave us the traditional clothes so that we wouldn’t ruin our street clothes – and I was grateful for that.
I hadn’t expected to sink so far into the mud, or to have muddy water up to my waste. At the same time, once I was standing in the canal, it was like I had suddenly downshifted into slow speed, without any added power. Trying to move through watery knee-deep mud, without any sort of solid footing, and hoping to catch fish felt like diving into any new sport for the first time: like being a child again.
There were five of us who got in that pond, and it was awhile before we saw anything. Apparently, the shrimp only start to come up once you get the mud good and stirred up. But once they came up, we caught quite a few. I say ‘we’, but I have my colleagues to thank for most of the shrimp. I was too focused on just trying to move my feet in the mud and stay sort of upright. The staff of the resort came to watch us, and would point out shrimp for us to catch – then laugh (with us, of course!) when we fumbled through the water and the shrimp would submerge just before we got there. The fish were another story. We saw a couple of them, but they were much more wily, and easily evaded our bumbling efforts.
I began to think, as I was dragging my feet through the mud, that this experience of learning to fish is not unlike diving into a new culture. You make your way along as best you can, but you will fumble about, and as long as you can laugh along with your new friends, things will probably work out fine. Also, you find out later that the mud is great exfoliation for your feet.
However, along with my visit here, as with a lot of places, I keenly felt the loss that is to come in the wake of climate change. The term for this feeling is solastalgia. You might think of it as nostalgia that is yet-to-be, induced by loss of natural environment. And on this visit, I could feel the rising tide of understanding that this place will be under much deeper water in 50 years or less, and along with these places that are swept up by the ocean, we lose the long traditions that make our lives on this planet rich and meaningful.
There’s still time, though. And, of course, that’s one of the reasons I’m here doing the work I do: connecting with other educators to help students understand what is happening and what role they play in the solutions.